A Dive Into Emptiness

A talk by Dainin Katagiri Roshi about the Buddhist idea of emptiness — and, an unusual sport.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi
1 September 2020
Photo by Craig Lovelidge.

Everything is emptiness. That is a point that Buddhism always emphasizes. But it’s very difficult to understand. Even if you understand it in an intellectual sense, it’s very difficult to understand, with your whole body and mind, the truth that everything is emptiness. But this is really true. So today I would like to say something about this.

The other day I watched a show on television, “The World Champions of Sport.” There were many different sportsmen on this program, and their sports were all a little unusual. I was very interested in the high dive, which was different from the high dive you usually see. A man was going to dive into a pool, but there wasn’t much water in the pool—just 12 1/4 inches of water. The diver was not young—he was 75 years old. And he was on a high ladder, higher than this building. Can you imagine this situation? It’s clear that if he dives in headfirst, his head will be broken, and if he dives in feet first, his legs will be broken. Then he dived perfectly, with his chest. I was very surprised. When I was a child I practiced diving. I would dive into the ocean headfirst, but one time I made a mistake and hit the water with my chest. I couldn’t breath. But this 75-year-old man jumped from higher than I did and hit the water with no problems.

There are three things here: the pool, the diver and also there is another thing. Something makes it possible for the pool and diver to exist, and makes a perfect dive possible. Maybe you can say that this is ultimate truth.

Before the dive, the announcer said, “You are a pretty old man, and the water is 12 1/4 inches deep. I am very scared, so please be careful. It’s dangerous.” But the diver said, “I don’t understand what you mean by saying it is dangerous. It is not dangerous, it is very natural behavior.” I was very surprised to hear this. Before he dived, he stood at the top of the ladder and took a little exercise, a kind of yoga exercise, bending his body at an angle of 90 degrees and continually glancing at the pool. He glanced at the pool for two or three minutes. Maybe he controlled his breathing, I don’t know, but he continued to keep glancing at the pool and finally he dived. Well, I had been thinking that this was a sport, but it was not sports, it was really human life. If you do a sport just as sport, as something separate from the rest of your life, that sport doesn’t teach you anything about human life. But the sport performed by this diver wasn’t only sport, it was human life. Through this sport we can learn how to live.

Let’s think about this. There are three things here: the pool, the diver and also there is another thing. Something makes it possible for the pool and diver to exist, and makes a perfect dive possible. Maybe you can say that this is ultimate truth. Maybe it’s an energy. I don’t know what it is, but something helps this old man to exist, the pool to exist and also creates the circumstances around their situation. So three things are surrounding this sport.

First, the pool. Let’s think about the pool. This pool has 12 1/4 inches of water. If you understand the pool as an idea, it doesn’t make any sense. How can someone jump into 12 1/4 inches of water? It seems ridiculous. So, this pool is beyond any idea of pool that you can have. The pool cannot be seen from the diver’s usual thinking—not in his human consciousness, not as an idea he has. No. The pool must be seen another way. It must be seen as emptiness. Emptiness means that the pool exists in the universe beyond any idea of pool attached to it. The 12 1/4 inches of water in the pool also exists beyond human speculation. You cannot say anything about it. So the water is also empty of concepts. If you continue to have the idea that the pool is something opposed to the diver, that means you are thinking of the pool as having a solid existence. If so, can you say it is possible for the diver to jump into this pool? No. It’s impossible because there’s no flexibility there. But actually, beyond human thinking, the pool and water are just existence, just being, which is constantly flexible according to conditions. So the pool is emptiness.

Most people misunderstand emptiness, thinking it means to destroy, or to ignore, our existence. This is a big mistake. Emptiness is not negative.

Next, the diver. If you think of the diver according to common sense, it’s physically and mentally impossible for him to dive that way. But he took a little exercise, maybe a kind of yoga exercise, and his body, his bones, and also his mind, became very flexible. He jumped into the water on his chest and his bones didn’t break, his stomach didn’t puff up and pop—his body and mind were completely flexible. We can try to explain it through yoga, but it still doesn’t make sense. Even if you practice yoga, how flexible are your skin, muscle and bone, really? They are still pretty stiff, don’t you think so? This diver was flexible beyond our human intellectual understanding. So the diver is emptiness.

Finally, the ultimate truth. Let’s imagine the ultimate truth that makes it possible for the pool and diver to exist. Do you think that the ultimate truth can control the pool’s life and also the diver’s life? Maybe so, maybe not. But even though you say: Yes, the ultimate truth controls the pool’s existence or the diver’s existence, this is just your human speculation based on concepts. We can discuss their existence according to the concept of ultimate truth, but where is the ultimate truth, actually? Do you say that ultimate truth is within the pool? Well, if ultimate truth is within the pool, can it help the diver who is not yet in the pool? I don’t think so. Do you say that ultimate truth exists within the diver? If that is true, how can it help the pool to receive the diver? Or do you say that the ultimate truth exists outside the pool and diver? If that is true, how can it help the pool and diver when it is completely apart from them? On the other hand, if ultimate truth does exist within the pool or diver, then it loses its own characteristic of existing forever without changing, because the pool and diver are part of the phenomenal world that is changing constantly. So no matter how long we discuss it, finally ultimate truth must be empty.

So all three: pool, diver and ultimate truth, are completely empty. There is nothing to say. Then, from this emptiness, they are brought back into life, which is fully alive beyond any human conception. The pool is ready to accept the diver, and the diver’s body and mind are completely flexible and perfectly ready to accept the pool without being confused by any external distractions. Then the diver can dive perfectly. Actually, the diver, pool and ultimate truth dive together in the realm of emptiness. This is interdependence. The diver cannot exist without the pool, the pool cannot exist without the diver, but both are empty, flexible, without any fixed ideas. Then, at that time, interdependent co-origination comes into existence. This is the refreshing life that is called flexibility, fluidity or freedom. Or sometimes it is called samadhi.

Most people misunderstand emptiness, thinking it means to destroy, or to ignore, our existence. This is a big mistake. Emptiness is not negative. Emptiness is letting go of fixed ideas you have had in order to go beyond them. Meister Eckhart calls it the desert. In the desert of emptiness, everything dies and then comes back to life. This is really true. Otherwise, you cannot be successful in doing anything at all. When you dance, when you sing, when you walk, when you do zazen, whatever you do, you must be empty first. And then, at that time, your life becomes flexible. Your body and mind must be flexible. Then you can really jump into painting, dancing, eating breakfast, washing your face, chanting and doing zazen. You can become one with your activity, whatever it is, and do your best.

But you cannot be blind. That’s why the diver is constantly glancing at the pool, using his consciousness, using his body, until he becomes one with the pool. Then, when the time and opportunity were ripe, he jumped. That is oneness. This dive is a wonderful teaching of the interdependence between the pool, diver and ultimate truth. When he jumps into the pool, the diver is not merely a diver and the pool is no longer separate from him. The pool is completely hidden behind his life, and the diver extends into the whole universe. His body and mind occupy the whole universe. How? By his actual practice, which is called diving. When everything is seen in the realm of emptiness, everything becomes lively and interconnected, beyond human speculation. At that time, you can really do something—something more than what you have thought.

If the diver has, even slightly, a common sense idea of the pool, his mind is disturbed and he is afraid. But when all have become empty, the pool is just like a beautiful flower blooming. There is no way to discuss that beautiful flower because it is beyond human speculation, concepts or ideas. All we have to do is pay careful attention to the reality of that beautiful flower as it really is. That is emptiness. Emptiness is exactly the same as interdependent co-origination. This interdependence is not an idea of relationship. It is a chance, a great opportunity, a place where everything becomes alive in a refreshing way. Within emptiness there is spiritual security. Spiritual security cannot be given to you by somebody else—you have to find it yourself, and it can only be found within the emptiness that makes your life alive.

We can apply this to the zazen meditation we do. Buddhism is not a philosophical teaching, it’s a teaching of human activity. We are always looking at zazen from our consciousness, with our preconceptions, but true zazen must be completely empty. If you think: I want to be buddha through the practice of zazen, then you and zazen are seen from your idea of buddha and zazen doesn’t work. That’s why there’s the story of Huai-jang, the zen master of Nan-yueh Mountain, who polished a tile. When Huai-jang asked the monk Ma-tsu what he hoped to attain by practicing meditation, the monk said he wanted to be a buddha. So Huai-jang picked up a tile and began polishing it to make a mirror. Ma-tsu asked, “How can you make a tile into a mirror?” And Huai-jang said, “How can you become a buddha by practicing zazen?”

If you have, even slightly, the idea, I want to be a buddha by practicing zazen, you have already created a conceptual world of three things: buddha, zazen and practicer. You go around in a circle with these ideas: what is buddha, what is zazen, what is practicer. But all you have to do is see buddha from emptiness, see zazen from emptiness and see practicer from emptiness. Just like the diver, you can handle yourself before you are distracted by thinking. You can see zazen prior to the germination of your intellectual sense. So handle zazen like this. Handle yourself like this. Then zazen really works, and practicer really works within zazen because the practicer is blooming in the universe. That is called shikantaza. There is a philosophical understanding behind the word shikantaza, but zazen itself is not the object of philosophical discussion. Zazen is just actual practice, like diving into the pool.

In space, time has no before as a previous moment, or after as a following moment, there is only right now, right here, blooming and extending into the whole universe.

Many things come up and distract us when we practice zazen: our preconceptions, ideas, karma, heredity, personality and many other things. So we have to take care of them continually, not with hatred, but by patting them on the head without being too interested in them. Just pat them on the head. But if I pat my head and say “good boy,” that is not the real practice of patting the head that I am talking about. When I think, “good boy,” that idea of good boy is coming from an idea of “bad boy” I had in the past. If you see things this way, you are creating ideas, discriminating between the previous moment, present moment and next moment. We usually think that time moves from the past, through the present, to the future. But time cannot be seen as just time. Time must be seen as time and also simultaneously as space. You cannot separate them. In space, time has no before as a previous moment, or after as a following moment, there is only right now, right here, blooming and extending into the whole universe. You must be in time; you must be at the moment where you cannot think about a previous moment or a following moment. That moment is a great opportunity. That is the moment you are you as you really are, prior to the germination of thinking.

If you become a dancer, how can you do this? How can you pat the head of your karma, your heredity, your customs and habits, or your personality? To pat their head means to just practice continually, just become empty and flexible, and just dance. Then this emptiness makes your life alive in the universe. You are ready to dive into the pool. Practice is simultaneously blooming your flower right now, right here. That’s why practice is not merely practice apart from enlightenment—practice is enlightenment itself.


Talk originally given at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center and subsequently published in the January 2003 Shambhala Sun (the former name of Lion’s Roar) magazine.